The question of Israel and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party remains high-profile, yet the suffering of the Palestinians does not. No sooner had the Gaza atrocities moved off the news then the attacks on Labour over alleged anti-Semitism started anew.
Opposition to Israel’s policies, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have been deliberately conflated and confused by those who wish to divert attention from the horrendous injustices visited on the Palestinians by the state of Israel and who wish to curtail effective campaigns against Israel’s policies. So clarity is really important.
That does not mean that anti-Semitism does not exist in Labour, it does, but that the handling of the issue by Corbyn’s political opponents and the media do not reflect the degree of the problem. When the Muslim Council of Britain raised concerns about Islamophobia in the Tory Party it was second from last item on the news for one day and sank without trace thereafter unlike Labour and anti-Semitism which continues to run and run. Yet we can rest assured that Islamophobia is a greater problem in the Tories than Anti-Semitism is in Labour. Indeed not only that anti-Semitism is also a greater problem among Tory voters than Labour supporters. A YouGov survey commissioned by the Campaign against Anti-Semitism last year demonstrated just that and further more found that anti-Semitic attitudes have declined in Britain over the years.
So why the strident campaign now about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party when the reality is that it is actually less of problem than before? There has to be some other reason. Whilst it has been useful as a means to undermine Corbyn, the more important issue is the real threat that he poses to the pro-Israeli consensus in British politics. To understand why this provokes such a severe backlash we need to understand the strategic significance of Israel in the Middle East.
The foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 is often portrayed as a reaction to the horrors of the Nazi genocide of the holocaust and the widespread persecution of Jews. That certainly motivated many Jewish people to travel to Palestine and make their homes there, but Israel’s origins go further back and have different meanings for different actors in its creation. The foundation stone of the state of Israel was laid in 1917 with the Balfour declaration which promised “a national home for the Jewish people…in Palestine”.
Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary and former Conservative Prime Minister, was only in a position to make this statement because Britain ruled that part of the world after driving out Germany’s Turkish allies during the First World War, which begs the question was it his to offer in the first place? The British had used Arab opposition to the Ottoman Empire to defeat the Turkish forces only to then renege on promises made to them. Instead of an Arab kingdom, the region was carved up between Britain and France under the Sykes-Picot agreement. 18 months after this Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild who was close to leaders of the Zionist movement to set out the Conservative Government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In doing this was Balfour motivated by humanitarian concern for the plight of Jewish people? Seems unlikely given that he had previously strongly opposed the admission of Eastern European Jewish Refugees into Britain who were fleeing the pogroms. He was also known for suppressing dissent as the Chief Secretary in Ireland and against the Boers in South Africa, where he also imported Chinese labourers living more or less in slavery.
But if the commitment to establishing a Jewish state in Palestine on the part of Britain was not motivated by any concern for the Jews, what was it about?
The game was exposed by the British Empire’s first Military Governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs when he said that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine would “form for England a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.” As well as drawing straight lines on maps, carving up the world to suit their interests, Sykes-Picot and Balfour were doing what the British did best – divide and rule. In Ireland, in the Asian sub-continent and yes in the Middle East. The aim of Britain was not to find a safe haven for the persecuted Jewish people but to use them as pawns, a bulwark against the Arabs whom the British had betrayed. Although it also has its own interests, that is a role which Israel still fulfils today. The robust defence of Israel by the US, Britain and others, whatever, its crimes against the Palestinians, cannot be understood outwith this context. Israel remains key to the strategic interests of Western powers, not the least of which is oil. Israel, a nuclear power, armed to the teeth by the US is a key player in past current Middle East conflicts, supporting the side of war against seeking peaceful solutions. It has made military incursions into neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Egypt (playing a key part in the Suez crisis) and occupying territory. It has recently launched missile strikes against Syria. Prime Minister Netanyahu was the main cheer-leader urging the US to end the Iran nuclear deal. A seriously destabilising move. It is in alliance now with the most reactionary Arab states, like Saudi Arabia.
Support for Israel by the US and Britain has nothing at all to do with support for Jewish people, but everything to do with power politics, war and self-interest. Israel is centrally important to the effort to dominate the Middle East by major powers.
So the attacks on Corbyn and the Labour Party over alleged anti-Semitism are motivated by those who above all see his policies of justice, peace and support for oppressed peoples as a threat to the neo-liberal order of war, interference in the affairs of others and exploitation.
The strength of this onslaught owes a lot to media bias and Britain’s vested interest in supporting Israel. But it also owes something to Israel’s proactive work to influence the political agenda here. Whilst Israel serves the West’s interests, it also pursues its own agenda. There has been a lot of attention paid to Vladimir Putin’s alleged attempts to influence the election results in the US and the Brexit referendum in Britain, however, influencing politics in other nations is something many countries do, from the BBC World Service to US spending billions of dollars supporting “democracy promotion” in places like Venezuela and Cuba. Israel does the same. Al Jazeera and the Electronic Intifada have documented the role of the Israeli embassy in London in working closely with “Friends of Israel” groups of parliamentarians. Shai Masot, Senior Political Officer, (later sacked) was caught on camera plotting to try to “take down” the Tory minister Alan Duncan. He was the key contact in the Embassy for Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). An officer with Labour Friends of Israel, Michael Rubin explained to an undercover reporter that Joan Ryan MP, chair of the group spoke to Masot “most days”. (What about?) Also explaining to the reporter that “We (i.e. the Embassy and LFI) work really closely but most of it is behind the scenes.” Masot also approached the reporter about starting a youth wing of LFI, but to keep embassy in the background as “No one likes that someone is managing his organisation.” From the report it is clear that LFI worked promote a delegation to Israel paid for by the embassy.
Some MPs have been very vocal over the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. This has included John Woodcock who resigned from the Party while facing an investigation over alleged sexual harassment. Ruth Smeeth is another leading figure in this campaign, bursting into tears when Marc Wadsworth suggested she was working along with the Daily Telegraph and claiming that it was anti-Semitic. She had a background in working for pro-Israeli groups before coming into parliament. Smeeth was Director of Public Affairs and Campaigns at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre which has as its mission ‘advancing a more supportive environment for Israel in Britain’. She received financial donations from two leading figures in the organisation one of whose father made his fortune in the Israeli arms industry. She was employed by the Community Security Trust which combats anti-Semitism but has also denounced anti-Zionist Jews and its security guards protect Jewish and pro-Israel events. While there she was seconded to the Board of Deputies. She was a Depute Director of Hope not Hate. A cable released by Wikileaks reported that Smeeth, labelled “strictly protect” had given US diplomats information about Gordon Brown’s planed date for a General Election.
In the service of this campaign to role back the increasing support for the Palestinians, there is a continuing attempt to re-define anti-Semitism from “hostility towards or discrimination against Jews as Jews” to include implied, subjectively viewed meanings which do not clearly meet this definition as in the case of Wadsworth who alleged that Ruth Smeeth was working hand in hand with the Daily Telegraph. This was held to be an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory trope. Yet it was a statement that did not reference Jewishness and could have been made about anyone regardless of whether they were Jewish or not.
The current controversy is around the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IRHA) definition of anti-Semitism, or more particularly how that has been expanded by the examples provided by the IHRA. Reporting by the media has given examples of the adoption of the IHRA definition by governmental bodies, like the British Government and the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly, giving the impression that this is an internationally recognised definition. Yet the IHRA has just 31member countries, only 4 of which are non-European – the USA, Canada, Argentina and Israel. Whilst the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism claims on its website that this is “the standard definition used around the world” clearly this is not the case. Whilst the basic IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is fine, the examples it gives tend to conflate Jewishness with Israel. Of the 11 bullet point examples given Israel is mentioned in 7 of them. Some are particularly problematic and the wording is such that critics of Israel will begin to self-censor for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. A group of 40 Jewish organisations recently called for governments and other bodies not to adopt the IHRA definition. Their letter says:
“The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which is increasingly being adopted or considered by western governments, is worded in such a way as to be easily adopted or considered by western governments to intentionally equate legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, as a means to suppress the former.
This conflation undermines both the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality and the global struggle against antisemitism. It also serves to shield Israel from being held accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law.”
In other words, a defensive wall for Israel which allows it a free hand to persecute the Palestinian people, whilst making criticism of that or taking action against it potentially “anti-Semitic”. The perpetrator, Israel, in this narrative becomes the victim and the real victims, the Palestinians are left without a voice.
The YouGov survey conducted on behalf of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism also included some other alarming views expressed by the Jewish people it surveyed. They felt very strongly that Labour was much more tolerant of Anti-Semitism than the Tories 83% versus 19%. A big majority, 78% said they had witnessed anti-Semitism disguised as criticism of Israel and the same percentage felt that boycotts of businesses selling Israeli products constitute intimidation. Whilst we don’t really know what individuals actually experienced the bias of these questions makes the agenda plain. We can expect to find anti-Semitism disguised as criticism of Israel and boycotts of Israel constitute intimidation of Jews. The attempt to conflate Jewish identity with Israel and Zionism has clearly a lot of traction. The pro-Israel campaign is now seeking to gain wide acceptance of this.
Anti-Zionist Jews and Jewish critics of Israel are a brave and embattled minority who face intimidation and have scorn heaped on them as self-hating Jews. As if to be Jewish you have to identify with a state which systematically persecutes its non-Jewish population and represents a threat to the stability of the Middle East through its policies and military aggression. Israel does not and should not be allowed to pretend to speak for Jews.
People sometimes argue that Zionism is a neutral term that only means the gathering together of the Jews. Yet political Zionism, actual Zionism in practice, leads to exclusion of non-Jews and discrimination. The problem with the actual gathering together of the Jews in Palestine was that as well as some Jews there was already a big and settled population of Muslim and Christian Arabs living there.
To get round this inconvenient obstacle and justify the occupation of Palestine it was said that there was no real Palestinian identity and the racist language of dehumanisation was used to argue that the Arab people who lived there had no rights. In 1919 Arthur Balfour belittled resident Palestinian’s rights compared to those of Jewish settlers referring to the: “..Desires and prejudices of the…Arabs…” as compared with the “age-long traditions, …present needs…and future hopes .” of the Jews. Winston Churchill said at the time the Arabs were “dogs in the manger” and went on to say, “I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia.” This was the chilling manner in which the rights of Palestinians were disregarded from the out-set of the establishment of the state of Israel.
In the Nakba of 1948-9, ¾ of a million Palestinians were driven from their homes and 13,000 killed.
For Israel to be a Jewish state, the Zionist aspiration, then it needs to be Jewish and its Jewish identity preserved. This lead to the Nakba and the continued eviction of Arab people from their land and homes and their replacement with Jewish settlers as well as the further occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It has led to restrictions of the rights of Palestinians including their not being accorded Israeli citizenship in East Jerusalem. Palestinians who remained in Israel after the Nakba have citizenship but not Israeli nationality. Palestinian’s lives are controlled by check points, there are roads which they are not allowed to use, housing developments in which they cannot live, there is the wall separates them from family, land and employment. It is not for nothing that Israel is called an apartheid state and why Palestinians have called for the same international response of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. From 1975 to 1991 the United Nations designated Zionism as a form of racism which was only changed as Israel had made it a precondition of it participating in peace talks. Israel has flouted countless UN resolutions from the 1940’s onward.
Anti-Semitism is racism and unacceptable and there is no reason to set out to cause offence to others, however, we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated into back-tracking by those who make false allegations of anti-Semitism to protect the unacceptable actions of the Israeli state.
Despite all the UN resolutions most recently its welcome condemnation of the Israeli actions in Gaza we know that these on their own are not changing things. Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem has killed off any pretence of a Peace Process. The Palestinians have their own problems with a divided leadership which has not been effective in standing up for their people. However, the horrendous circumstances in which they live mean that their resistance can and must continue. Actions of peoples and governments across the world will be needed to make change. Despite the differences, BDS was a call which emanated from Palestine and is supported across the political spectrum and among civil society groups. We must do everything we can to support that call.